"Harper Valley P.T.A." is a country song written by Tom T. Hall which in 1968 became a major international hit single for country singer Jeannie C. Riley. The song was originally recorded by Margie Singleton, on Ashley Records A 5000 in July, 1968. Riley's record sold over six million copies as a single. It was Riley's debut hit and only chart topper, making her the first woman to top both the Billboard Hot 100 and the U.S. Hot Country Singles charts with the same song (but not at the same time), a feat that would not be repeated until Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" 13 years later in 1981. It was also Riley's only Top 40 pop hit.
Riley sings a story about Mrs. Johnson, a "Harper Valley widowed wife" whose teenage daughter, a student at the junior high school, comes home one day with a note for her mother signed by the PTA secretary, in which they scold her for "wearing your dresses way too high", for reports about her drinking and running around with multiple men, and that she shouldn't be raising her daughter that way. Outraged, Mrs. Johnson decides to pay an unannounced visit to the PTA, who happened to be holding a meeting that afternoon.
To the PTA's surprise, Mrs. Johnson, again wearing a miniskirt, walks in and addresses the meeting, exposing a long list of indiscretions on the part of the members, most of whom were in attendance:
Bobby Taylor, who, aroused by her mini-skirt, had asked Mrs. Johnson for a date seven times
(Mrs. Johnson also mentions Bobby's wife, who "seems to use a lot of ice" in his absence, the implication being that she is entertaining her own lover while her husband is out);
Mr. Baker, whose secretary had to leave town for an undisclosed reason (the implication being that she was pregnant with his child);
Widow Jones, who leaves her window blinds wide open and little to onlookers' imaginations;
Mr. Harper, who was absent from the meeting because "he stayed too long at Kelly's Bar again"; and
Shirley Thompson, who also has a drinking problem, as evidenced by gin on her breath.
Mrs. Johnson then rebukes them for having the audacity to declare her an unfit mother, referring to the town as "a little Peyton Place" and labeling the PTA a bunch of hypocrites.
In the final stanza of the song, Riley states that the story is true, and in the final line identifies herself as the daughter of Mrs. Johnson when she sings, "...the day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA".
STORY BEHIND THE SONG
When Jeannie C. Riley recorded "Harper Valley PTA" in 1968, it not only became her most beloved hit to date, but also threw songwriter Tom T. Hall into the spotlight: The song became a major, international hit -- the song hit No. 1 in Canada and Australia, and earned a Top 20 spot in the U.K. (No. 12) -- and has sold more than 6 million copies. "Harper Valley PTA" also made Riley the first woman to land at No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot Country Singles and Hot 100 charts with the same song -- something that no other female artist would do until 1981 (Dolly Parton's "9 to 5").
"Harper Valley PTA" shows off Hall's mastery of translating keen observations into compelling lyrics and music -- and that's no accident. The now-famous songwriter had planned on making a career as a journalist or novelist -- but then "Harper Valley PTA" won the 1968 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Vocal Performance and the CMA Award for Single of the Year.
Below, Hall tells The Boot about the hit song and what inspired him to write it.
The story is a true story. I didn't make the story up; I chose the story to make a statement, but I changed the names to protect the innocent.
There were 10 kids in our family. We'd get up in the morning, and my mother and father would get bored with us running around, and we'd go terrorize the neighbors up and down this little road we lived on -- after we had done our chores, of course. I was just hanging around downtown when I was about nine years old and heard the story and got to know this lady. I was fascinated by her grit. To see this very insignificant, socially disenfranchised lady -- a single mother -- who was willing to march down to the local aristocracy read them the riot act, so to speak, was fascinating.
I wrote the song 30 years later; that song was my novel. I had been reading Sinclair Lewis. As a young man, I read Lewis' novels Babbitt and Elmer Gantry, which is about hypocrisy; Babbitt is, of course, about the social structure of the small town. So, being a big Sinclair Lewis fan, when I wrote "Harper Valley," I incorporated elements of Elmer Gantry into the song.
Tom T. Hall